“We’re crazy but we’re not stupid” is the brief you’ll hear from Bryan Vivier when you go out on a shark dive. He also talks about the ‘eye roll’ which basically means that you’ll be eaten alive unless you have the presence of mind to hit the monster right in the jowls. His relationship with the ocean is unique having dived since the age of 6 growing up in Hermanus, Eastern Cape.
“Those were the days when diving was dangerous and sex was safe,” he explains at his dive shop Aliwal Shoal Scuba in Umkomaas on the south coast of Kwazulu Natal.
You only need to go out once on any of their dives to know the reason why.
“Jacques Cousteau has declared this as one of the top 10 diving spots in the world even before we started doing shark diving. He was blown away by the Sand Tigers or what we call Ragged Tooth sharks. Can you imagine what he’ll say today?”
You can choose a cage dive or an open water one. This is how the latter works: they lower a bar into the water. You dive to the bar and lean against it to steady yourself eliminating hand movements or general flailing around. A chum bucket with holes in the sides filled with sardine guts and blood is then lowered into the water at a distance. At first you’re surrounded by Black Tips, lots of them, the puppy dogs of the sea. Then the big boys start moving in slowly, Tiger sharks that investigate and try to take a bite out of the smelly stuff on offer.
“There must be a huge risk involved?” I ask.
“Sure there is but we’ve been doing this since the 90’s and we’ve never had an incident. Scuba divers scare sharks because of all the noise we make and the expanding bubbles rising to the surface. They are 400 million years old, the scuba diving industry is about a 100 years old. They don’t know what to make of us which makes them wary. Besides, we’re definitely not on the menu.”
“Is there any chance of hurting them or damaging their eco system?”
“Some animal conservationists, not that we’re not, will argue that it’s wrong. But when you ask them about fishing, they say that’s ok. We’ve replaced metal drums with plastic ones since the former might hurt the sharks’ teeth. We go out for an hour and take a little bit of bait with us. We don’t catch or kill anything.”
“But don’t the sharks get frustrated or go into a frenzy when they can’t get what they want i.e. the chum in the drum?”
“Humans tend to anthropomorphize animals. They don’t have feelings like we do. When there is no reward they just go away. They might become a little frenzied when at the end of the dive some sardines fall out but even then they’re cordial unless two are aiming for the same bait.”
“In your opinion, do you see fish and mammals diminishing?”
“On the north side of the reef, it looks a bit like a mowed lawn, which is worrying. But generally speaking, the reef is still lively and vibrant.”
“And challenges ahead?”
“Well there’s this Sappi factory and the Natal Sharks Board with their nets, but that’s a whole different story.”